Superman has always been a favorite character of mine. I grew up watching the cartoon show in the early 90s and even had an old VHS from the ancient animated series that I received as a gift from some obscure relative. Truth, justice, and the American way. As corny as that might sound, it is something that reverberates within me; particularly since my waking American revival within the past few years as I’ve learned more about what went into the primordial soup of the United States. It’s been unfortunate then that for the past several years, Superman hasn’t had a good run of stories. There certainly has been exceptions such as Morrison’s All-star Superman and Waid’s Superman: Birthright, but the monthlies have been weak. So when it was announced that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS) was coming to DC to write Superman there was a lot of buzz. When the Earth One concept was announced and that JMS was writing the Superman book for it, there was a lot of excitement. After a year of development, what followed was a disappointing, albeit satisfactory product.
The Earth One series of books take advantage of the DC’s concept of the multiverse – ie. parallel universes. Although this was no different than their original Elseworlds products, a self-contained comic universe with continuity across books without all the baggage of earlier writings has its advantages. Marvel has done the same with its Ultimate series and J.J. Abhrams did something similar with his Star Trek. It allows the writers freedom when crafting their stories. So the idea of JMS being given the task of Superman for this fresh start seemed like an excellent choice. Although I have not read his work at Marvel, his reputation on his work for Thor made it seem like it would be a great match for Superman. His work on DC’s The Brave & the Bold, which I have read, was incredible. Things were looking up and reviews of advance copies by most media outlets were positive. However, reviews by dedicated comic book readers weren’t. So what happened? After all, the book sold remarkably well.
JMS attempted to make a characterization of Superman which would resonate more with readers of today. This is what offended most of the comic book aficionados. They described him as “emo”, which has a whole slew of connotations, and stated that his divergence from the Superman we know was too far for comfort. In the Earth One book, Clark Kent is twenty and fresh out of community college and unsure of what he wants from life when he travels to Metropolis – even resisting the obvious conclusion of his journey. In other versions, he was in his mid-twenties having traveled the world and gotten a university degree in journalism; a confident man from Smallville who hid behind the clumsy “Metropolis Clark” to conceal his identity. It was quite startling and it took me by surprise when I read it. However, it took me a second read to get it.
What JMS did is what has been a trend in comics for the past thirty or so years. I understand it, but it can still be frustrating. He’s trying to make Superman more relatable while still referencing his super nature. This Earth One Clark Kent is the renaissance man of previous versions, using his skills to achieve nearly anything earthly in his search for a comfortable job to take care of his widowed mother. Yet, he is a loner. He recognizes that by donning the mantle of a superhero, he will isolate himself completely from humanity even more than he is now. On my first read, I didn’t think too much of it. On my second, it clicked because I recognized that this Clark didn’t have the childhood friends of Lana Lang and Pete Ross or even the Legion of Super-heroes and Lex Luthor. No wonder he seemed distant and somewhat angst-ridden. JMS has written someone who is an alien not just in his origins, but in his interactions. His aversion to serving mankind only seems natural due to his inability to feel welcomed around other people. That he eventually comes around forms a nice character arc that many writers have trouble achieving. This Clark Kents ends in a different spot from where he began.
So, despite my qualms with a trend toward realism (or aptly “grounding”) of such a character and his origin, chalk one up for JMS.
There are a number of other things that JMS did well. His Jimmy Olsen is quite spectacularly fun for the time we see him. Rather than being Superman’s Pal who is more enthusiasm rather than skill and always getting into trouble, this Olsen is a confident, daredevil photographer. The Earth One Perry White and Lois Lane are familiar and welcomed characters, as are Ma and Pa Kent. Finally, the condition of The Daily Planet as a financially struggling newspaper fit well with today – fulfilling the goal of modernizing the tale of Superman – although I fear it might end up dating the story badly in the years to come. I also am intrigued by the idea of different star types and how they might affect Superman as alluded to by the antagonist. JMS seems to have a long-term idea of where to go with this series. Chalk a few more points for JMS.
So where did he go wrong?
I already mentioned his presentation of Clark Kent, which was not accepted by many critics. I’m inclined to side with them, but I’m willing to give it a pass due to how JMS got to that point. My main issue is that this graphic novel is just another origin story, which has been done before and done better. It fits with what he was trying to do for laying Earth One groundwork, but it wasn’t particularly necessary. Even if it just had to be done, the impetus for Clark Kent becoming Superman was his parents rather than his personal experiences and knowledge of himself like it was with Waid’s Birthright or more recently Geoff John’s Superman: Secret Origin. This makes the whole ordeal forced and not natural. Furthermore, this actually works counter to JMS’s interest in crafting mythos for the reader.
One of the things about myth is that sometimes all the details are not present, which works for creating interest in the character (eg. Wolverine, The Minnesota Tribe, Boba Fett). Everyone knows the beginnings of Superman as is, but even for this new version, I can’t help but feel all those pages were a bit of a waste. For an epic, beginning in medias res might have been preferable. Maybe even skipping the origins altogether and getting right to the conflict being faced should have been considered. That’s one of the many reasons why All-star Superman succeeded. As a consequence of focusing on an origin story, the antagonist suffers and seems flat despite the obvious potential.
An uninspiring villain is an all too common occurrence and most obviously observed in comic book movies. A story wherein a new villain is introduced to the audience while the protagonist is in some other conflict invariably ends up weaker for it. Take for example the Iron Man movies. The first was carried by Robert Downey Jr. because of his acting skills and screen presence compensating for a weak villain (even though Jeff Bridges did a great job). There wasn’t much time to develop the villain because he was cookie-cutter and room had to be made for Tony Stark’s origin. In the second movie, we saw Stark fighting against his own personal demons and a new, underdeveloped villain. Two antagonists and it suffered as a result. Conversely, take a look at Nolan’s Dark Knight where the character of Batman was established and Heath Ledger was given ample screen time to run wild with his Joker. Unquestionable success.
Superman: Earth One falls into this same pit. While the fight sequence is solid, the new villain makes little impact because of his lack of development. This is a shame since there was clearly a lot of potential and I actually hope something similar is done in the monthly book. Regardless, even though the world is saved, with a flat antagonist the climax is underwhelming. Or maybe the threat wasn’t bombastic and grandiose enough. When I think of a comic series such as The Authority, I wonder whether a grander adventure wouldn’t have been better for a new Superman instead of what we had here. Essentially, a more fantastical story instead of a “realistic” one: a more fun story instead of a somber one. One reviewer stated that this book seems like an unconscious reaction to Morrison’s All-star Superman and I can see how that might be the case, but it’s weaker for it.
As for the artwork, Shane Davis’ pencils and details are done to a very high quality. They fit the book and I like the minimal redesign to Superman’s costume. Oddly though, I enjoyed his work more on the monthlies he did such as Superman/Batman and JLA. Still, Davis did a good job and in time he could be considered one of the best of the industries once his skills mature a bit more.
To conclude, Superman: Earth One is a flawed, but successful story. Its shortcomings lie in the fact that as an origin story it vastly limits itself leading to retreading old paths and a poorly fleshed out antagonist. This new take on The Man of Steel is interesting and internally consistent, but lacks urgency and intensity and scope. A sequel has been fast-tracked already (which has had consequences for JMS’s work on monthly books) and I’m curious to see where it will go. My hope is that it will be an improvement on this first book. JMS has shown himself to be an excellent story teller with previous works and so my hope may not be misplaced.